Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Into the Woods
Greasepaint Youth Theatre
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's recent reviews of The Drowsy Chaperone and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Declan Skaggs, Evan Kaushesh, Olivia Feldman,
and DJ Coon

Photo by Ayana Newsum
The past few weeks have seen three youth theatres present superb productions of three different musicals that can be hard to get just right, even from a cast with years of experience. After wonderful productions of Once at Spotlight Youth Theatre and The Drowsy Chaperone at Desert Stages, Greasepaint Youth Theatre is presenting a stellar production of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Into the Woods, one of the cleverest musicals ever written and one of the most difficult to pull off successfully.

This original musical uses several familiar fairy tales, including the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Rapunzel, along with a brand-new fairy tale of a childless Baker and his wife who are desperate to have a child, to interconnect all of the tales. When the Baker and his wife are told by the witch who lives next door that the curse she placed on them, which is why they are unable to have a child, can be reversed by a potion made of four items, it sets them off into the woods on a hunt to gather the items and lift the curse. They and the audience quickly come to understand that the items are all related to the other fairy-tale characters who are also in the woods: Jack on his way to market to sell his cow; Little Red on her way to her grandmother's house; Rapunzel, who lives in a tower in the woods; and Cinderella, who is on her way back from the ball.

Sondheim's intricate score, which includes some of his most complicated and humorous rhyme schemes, and Lapine's book, which is filled with a superb blend of both comical and serious moments, beautifully and effortlessly bring these famous characters together into one seamless adventure. While the first act focuses on what the characters do in order to make their wishes come true, Sondheim and Lapine crafted a dark but moving second act that depicts what happens after "happily ever after" and how there can be serious repercussions to the choices the characters make and that you have to be very careful in what you wish for. With some of Sondheim's brightest and most moving ballads, including "No One is Alone," and "Children Will Listen," Into the Woods also has songs with important lessons and messages underneath a comical exterior.

The large Greasepaint cast is practically perfect. Declan Skaggs and Hailey Laidig form a couple you root to see succeed as the Baker and thhe Baker's Wife. They both have warm and bright singing voices that shine on their numerous songs and they both create multi-dimensional characters with layers of charm, humor and warmth. Skaggs' solo of "No More" is very moving and Laidig's delivery of "Moments in the Woods" is both comically sharp and quite touching, as she beautifully shows the conflicted sides of her character. As Cinderella, DJ Coon is smart, sweet and sensible, delivering a clear and bright version of her solo song "On the Steps of the Palace."

With an appropriately exuberant nature and line readings that are infused with care and understanding, Evan Kaushesh adds many layers to his portrayal of Jack, and his rich singing voice delivers a beautiful "Giants in the Sky." Olivia Feldman infuses Little Red Riding Hood with an abundance of sass underneath her sweet exterior, while also displaying hints of sensitivity and understanding in a performance that, like all of the other main cast members, she makes entirely her own. Her solo of "I Know Things Now" is comically sharp, and you'll also most likely get a tear in your eye when Skaggs, Kaushesh, Coons and Feldman sing "No One Is Alone." As the Witch, Sydney Hassler perfectly balances the scary side of her character with pops of comedy that bring the right blend of menace and humor to the part. Her performance of "Last Midnight" builds into a showstopper.

As the two Princes, Grady Newsum and Kyle Chait are hilarious, with layers of condensation and aloofness that bring these typically two-dimensional fairy-tale characters fully to life. Their duet of "Agony" is a crowd pleaser. The large supporting cast works very well, with particularly good work by Nathan Sullivan as the Narrator, Alex Hinkle as the Mysterious Man, Liv Steen as Rapunzel, and Kennedy Czyz as Jack's Mother.

Director Becca Courtney doesn't make one false move while also adding many original touches–I especially like how Cinderella's stepsisters are more focused on their cellphones than what is going on around them and how Jack pulls out an inhaler at one point when his asthma is acting up due to him being scared in the woods. While the only very small quibble I have is that a few of Lapine's humorous lines were rushed at the performance I attended, so the jokes didn't quite land, Courtney does great work with each of the actors to ensure that they create fleshed-out characters, the more humorous lines and lyrics aren't overacted, and the serious moments truly resonate.

Sondheim's score has many overlapping and intricate parts–the beginning sequence that introduces all of the main characters and their backstories is especially difficult and layered–and Courtney, music director MaryEllen Loose, and their talented cast never falter in their ability to be successful in making every musical number soar. Peter Bish's excellent set design and Dale Nakagawa's beautiful lighting create some memorable stage images–the shafts of lighting that shine through the trees in "Giants in the Sky" is extremely impressive. Mickey Courtney's costumes for the main characters are very notable, with beautiful fabrics and colors–only the stepsisters' gowns aren't exactly right since Lapine's dialogue says they should be mauve and pink. Bish's sound design delivers clear vocals and a perfect balance for vocals and the well-orchestrated musical tracks.

The Phoenix youth theatre community has been the launch pad for many individuals who have found success on Broadway and in Hollywood, including, most notably, Emma Stone, and many others, including two young men who were just on Broadway, Casey Likes, who starred in Almost Famous, and Sam Primack, who was the last Evan Hansen in Dear Evan Hansen. With many exceptional performances in Greasepaint's Into the Woods, I wouldn't be surprised if many of these talented teens find themselves on Broadway or in Hollywood as well.

Into the Woods runs through February 19, 2023, at Greasepaint Youth Theatre, 7020 E. 2nd Street, Scottsdale AZ. For information and tickets, please call 480-949-7529 or visit

Directed by Becca Courtney
Musical Director: MaryEllen Loose
Set Designer: Peter Bish
Lighting Designer: Dale Nakagawa
Costume Design: Mickey Courtney
Sound Designer: Peter Bish
Props Designer: Maureen Watson
Scenic Artist: Karina Bland

Baker: Declan Skaggs
Baker's Wife: Hailey Laidig
Cinderella: DJ Coon
Jack: Evan Kaushesh
Little Red Riding Hood: Olivia Feldman
The Witch: Sydney Hassler
Cinderella's Prince/Wolf: Grady Newsum
Rapunzel's Prince: Kyle Chait
Narrator: Nathan Sullivan
Mysterious Man: Alex Hinkle
Rapunzel: Liv Steen
Jack's Mother: Kennedy Czyz
Cinderella's Stepmother: Swae Miller-Estabrook
Florinda: Vivian Nichols
Lucinda: Lilli Danseglio
Cinderella's Father: Marco Johnson
Cinderella's Mother: Brailey McDaniel
Steward: Carson Doan
Granny: Keegan McAleece
Snow White: Freya Karve
Sleeping Beauty: Melissa Engel